Correcting the record

The other night I had dinner with an old friend from the restaurant business, who supervised me a long time ago. The years have apparently addled his brain, as John remembers me as a "terrible employee." He forgets that he hired me at a second restaurant.

Let me correct the record, as I did with John last night. I was not terrible, and there were many who were worse than me. But it's true, I was a pain in the ass - which perhaps serves me well as an employment attorney - but did not endear me to management.

The job to which John was referring was in a fancy French restaurant in a hotel. As a waiter, I wore a tuxedo, did tableside cooking, and wore a tastevin around my neck. I learned a great deal about food, wine and service. I loved my job and did everything I could to be better. But after three years, I ran myself out of a job.

Let's start with the "no beard" policy, which I did not like. I tried to reason with our general manager, to no avail. I pointed out that famous chefs all over the country had beards, such as the one at Detroit's London Chop House, then perhaps the most highly regarded restaurant in the state. Our GM was unmoved. So I did what any other P.I.T.A. employee would do, and went to a doctor who diagnosed me with "pseudofolliculitis barbae," a medical condition that required me to maintain a beard. I am not making this up [in fact, there is a Michigan Court of Appeals case on the same issue, reversing the dismissal of a firefighter with this condition who had refused to shave his beard, under what was then called the Handicapper's Civil Rights Act. Shelby Township Fire Dep't v. Shields, 115 Mich App 98 (1982)]. I got to keep the beard, while the GM steamed.

Then there's the memo I wrote to our GM protesting that we were open on Labor Day, a traditional holiday for workers. Boy, she hated that. But perhaps not as much as the time I tried to organize my fellow employees and presented a petition to management. They took us seriously enough to hold a meeting and promised some token reforms, but that sure put me on their hit list.

One day after our shift ended Andy and I stayed late. We somehow finagled a couple of steaks and he grabbed a bottle of wine, and we sat in the "alcove" for dinner and conversation. Somehow suspicions were aroused, and the next day, the GM grilled the night custodian. Fearing for his job, he told on us. I was fired, while Andy - the golden fair haired child of management - faced no discipline.

At this point I had a classic employment claim. I would allege that I was fired in illegal retaliation for my protected activity, and point to the disparate treatment between me and Andy. Meanwhile, management distinguished our situations by pointing out my other offenses, one of which John reminded me to justify that I was a terrible employee - "But Nick, you rode your bicycle through the dining room!"

What I had actually done was walk my bicycle from the outside, through the hotel lobby, and into a storage area for security. At one point I hopped up and side saddled, coasting for about three seconds. A couple people laughed, I was never counseled or disciplined, and it just became part of restaurant lore. But it was later used to justify my termination, and became exaggerated as a ride through the dining room. I think that qualifies it as a classic "pretext" justification.

Another transgression that John had forgotten was my forward roll, which this time did occur in the dining room. On a very slow weekday, it is true, starting at the entrance into the dining room - wearing my tuxedo - I performed a well-executed forward roll. To applause, as I recall.

After I was fired, I did see a lawyer. I ended up not making a claim, but this history taught me many lessons.

One, it really sucks being fired. I was a blue collar kid, and had to work my way through undergraduate and law school. This termination occurred a few months before I was to begin law school, and I had hoped to continue working part time as long as I could. I made great money, and never found an adequate substitute for that job. To this day I don't think I ever have attained the same level of disposable income, and law school was always a financial struggle.

Being fired is also very depressing. I remember running into a friend in line at the unemployment office. I avoided social situations. I was embarrassed.

I also learned that employers, especially hotel general managers who are trying to run a classy establishment, do not like to be challenged. Back then I was just a stupid kid who thought he was always right. I've since learned to choose my battles carefully. Yes, it's wrong to retaliate against someone for legally "protected activity." But it's another thing to keep trying to show up your boss when you don't have to. As a classic "Alpha Male," it's a lesson I sometimes have to keep reminding myself. (The only time I didn't suffer this problem is when I was in solo practice.)

I also learned that no amount of hard work can save you when management doesn't like you. Andy, the aforementioned GM's pet, could get away with murder. So did "Greg," the cook who maintained a freezer full of expensive cuts of meat at home. Then there was "Joe," the busser who had stolen six sets of everything plates, silver, stemware, and even had a budvase in his bathroom. Joe would also hit on his "smokeless doper" in the busser's station, separated from the dining room by only a low wall. But they managed to fly under the radar, while I was too stupid to do so.

Which is why John remembers my errors, and why I can tell prospective new clients, "I've been there, my friend."

But I did NOT ride my bicycle through the dining room.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at His blog is

Published: Thu, Jan 22, 2015


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